Basin lawmaker chides controversial senator
February 19, 2008
Rep. Christine Johnson, a Democrat who serves the Snyderville Basin, railed against state Sen. Chris Buttars after the Republican firebrand made a comment on the Senate floor interpreted by some as racist.
"I feel really sorry for him that he is lacking so much awareness, and I feel sorry for him that, rather than legislating with a compassionate and kind mentality, that he seems to choose to be so angry,"
Johnson said. "[Buttars] has always overstepped boundaries and demonstrated his discriminatory perspective on multiple social issues."
In a heated debate Feb. 12 about school funding that included references to King Solomon and splitting babies, Buttars, who is from West Jordan, used a baby as a metaphor for a bill he opposed. The comments followed those of another Republican senator who called the bill "the ugly baby bill."
Buttars added, " this baby is black, I’ll tell you. This is a dark, ugly thing."
He later apologized on the Senate floor after being told by colleagues his statements could be offensive. Buttars said he didn’t intend for his comments to be interpreted as racist and that he regretted it afterward.
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But the apology was unacceptable, Johnson said.
"Whether his comments intentionally represented a racial discrimination, I cannot say. I hope not," Johnson told The Park Record. "However, I was not satisfied with his apology because it appeared to apologize not for his comment, but for the way in which his comments could have been interpreted by the community."
Sen. Ross Romero, a Salt Lake Democrat who previously represented western Summit County in the House, notified Senate President John Valentine of the "breach of decorum."
Romero described offense he took from the remarks as "visceral" in an interview Monday on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, Jeanetta Williams, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, demanded Buttars resign from the Senate.
"We are not accepting your apology," Williams said. "It’s about time we, as a civil rights organization call for his resignation."
Williams cited a pattern of remarks she has found offensive dating back to 2006, when Buttars said in a radio interview that the landmark 1955 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared public school segregation unconstitutional was "wrong to begin with."
Buttars claimed his remarks were misunderstood and that Brown v. Board of Education had many positive results.
On Tuesday, Johnson stopped short of calling for Buttars to resign.
"I would be astounded if Sen. Buttars’ constituents re-elected him. More so than me telling Buttars what his actions should be, his constituents should make the determination," Johnson said. "I challenge them to get educated, be registered to vote and be prepared to elect a more fair-minded and reasonable senator."
Buttars’ colleagues know him as a moral crusader on the Hill who has sponsored bills to do away with clubs in public schools that cater to gay students and to ensure that so-called "divine design" is taught alongside human evolution in Utah classrooms.
However, the senator "doesn’t have a racist bone in his body," Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"He worked with minorities for years and years at the Boys Ranch. They all duly loved him. If he were a racist man, he wouldn’t have been at the Boys Ranch," Ruzicka said.
The Boys Ranch is a private, non-profit school and treatment facility for troubled youth.
Lawmakers used several metaphors to describe the bill they were debating, which the media blew "completely out of proportion," she added.
"To try to frame him as being racist, to me, is just the most unbelievable thing. Anybody who would do that is just anxious to play the race card because [Buttars] is not a racist man," Ruzicka said. "He was just describing the bill and his opinion on the bill because it had to do with educational funding for the people he represents, and he just wanted to make sure they were getting their share of the money."
Buttars declared that he will seek another term in the Senate, she said.
"He is getting hundreds of cards and letters and emails from the people in his area. There were those who were wearing T-shirts and those T-shirts said ‘We support Chris Buttars’," Ruzicka said. "He’s a target. There are people out there who don’t like him and whenever they find a reason to make a big deal out of something, that’s what they do."
Associated Press contributed to this report.